Critical habitat designation is required by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA prohibits federal agencies from funding, authorizing, or carrying out any action that adversely modifies or destroys critical habitat. Critical habitat is defined as those areas necessary to recover threatened and endangered species to the point that they no longer need the ESA's protection. Critical habitat may include areas not currently occupied by threatened and endangered species if these areas are necessary for their survival and recovery. The essential role of critical habitat is to help recover threatened and endangered species and get them off the list.
"There is a lot of misinformation about critical habitat in Hawai'i," said Marjorie Ziegler, Earthjustice Resource Analyst. "Critical habitat is not a federal land grab. It does not mean that the areas designated as critical habitat will become nature preserves. It is a tool for the people to use to protect the land, our natural resources, and special areas. Critical habitat designation means that federal agencies cannot fund, authorize, or carry out actions that will destroy or adversely modify the habitat that is essential to getting these plants off the endangered species list. This is especially important in Hawai'i because of the significant federal presence here, such as military training, federally funded highway, and sewage plant and airport construction," Ziegler said.
The organizations have identified several omissions in the Service's proposed critical habitat. Historic, but currently unoccupied, habitat for listed plants still found on Maui and Kaho`olawe is not included in the proposed critical habitat designation. Nor is the Service proposing critical habitat for 14 plant species that used to occur on Maui and/or Kaho`olawe, are no longer found there, but still occur on one or more of the other Hawaiian islands.
"Critical habitat should include areas currently unoccupied by listed plants if these areas are necessary to recover the species and get them off the list," said Karen Blue, Executive Director of CCH. "Designating only the areas where listed plants are currently found is contrary to common sense, species recovery, and the ESA. Excluding Maui and Kaho`olawe from the proposed critical habitat for these plants severely limits their overall chances for recovery. In order to reduce the risk of extinction, unoccupied areas that are suitable for reintroductions and outplanting of these plants should be designated as critical habitat," Blue said.
The Service is not designating critical habitat in the Waikamoi and Kapuanakea Preserves, Pu`u Kukui Watershed Management Area, the upper part of Hanawï Natural Area Reserve, and Haleakalä National Park.
"While we appreciate the efforts of government agencies and private landowners to protect native Hawaiian ecosystems and other special areas, critical habitat should be designated in all areas that are essential to recover these plants, including areas currently managed to promote conservation," said Jeff Mikulina, Executive Director of Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter. "The fact that some essential habitat areas are currently managed to benefit listed plants does not mean they do not need the vital protection that critical habitat designation confers," Mikulina said.
The organizations note that just because certain areas are currently managed to promote conservation, does not necessarily prevent federal agencies from proposing actions in the future that would threaten listed plants and their habitat. For example, in 1998, the U.S. Navy proposed a deep draft harbor and missile launches on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals, despite the fact that the island is part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Designating critical habitat also would prevent federal actions taking place outside managed areas -- such as the proposed expansion of Kahului airport and the introduction of alien species -- from threatening essential habitat found within preserve or national park boundaries.
In addition, the Service is not proposing critical habitat for a plant on Maui it believes may be extinct, but is still listed as an endangered species (Acaena exigua, or liliwai, a member of the rose family). The organizations note that Hawaiian plants and animals are constantly being discovered and rediscovered as more surveys are conducted in remote natural areas. As long as the liliwai is on the endangered species list, it deserves and requires critical habitat.